Rejoice - repentance then joy
Gaudate Sunday is the Sunday in Advent we think about rejoicing and about joy. But why do we have a day which has the theme of rejoicing during a season of the Church which is a penitential season – a season about making paths straight, about repentance, about turning away from sinful habits in order to be prepared to welcome the Messiah. It seems a contradiction. Surely Advent is a season of mourning, of weeping, of being sad?
However this is a mistaken way of thinking. It is in fact the way in which the modern secular world regards religion. The modern secular world regards religion to be about restricting freedom, about rules, about being strict, about being uptight, about not doing what you want to do. Sound familiar?
But we really need to wake up to the fact that this is a lie. It is a convenient lie that justifies people in ignoring religion, and not least Christianity.
We have been exploring this particularly in the course I started recently on Theology of the Body, at the chaplaincy. What this course engages with is that of the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, chastity and marriage. And one couldn’t pick an area of church teaching that is more misunderstood and misrepresented and hated than Catholic sexual ethics! People truly believe that the Church’s teaching is all about rules of “do not do this…do not do that…” Theology of the Body is not like that however, it views the teaching of the Church first of all from the standpoint of love, and it reveals the Church’s teaching as Good News.
In Theology of the Body we learn why the Church teaches what she teaches and why it is Good News. And it is a joyful revelation; and a revelation that truly sets us free. We’ve also discovered how miserable the world’s approach to sex makes people, and that they really need this Good News; in other words it has made us want to be evangelists of this Theology!
But this isn’t restricted to this area of Church teaching alone. This is generally true of the whole Christian message.
Now this is partly our fault! And it is the fault of recent generations of believers!
People of faith have been too content to reduce their faith to a set of rules. And they have not taken the trouble to find out why the Church teaches what she does. And this is one of the reasons why Christianity has been waning in Europe and North America. People do not respond to rules – rules do not give joy, and they do not communicate Good News!
Rules do have some advantages, and of course we do need rules to keep order and to give us a sense of being together in a community. But they are also in a sense easy – easy to understand. It does not take too much effort to understand a rule. It is usually simple and straightforward. Take the obligation to go to mass on every Sunday for example. It is easy to understand – there is just the question to obey it or not. But if we choose to be obedient (which we know we ought to be) then it doesn’t require any more studying of our faith to comprehend it. Yet there is a reason for the obligation. The Church does not require Sunday Mass attendance arbitrarily. It is in fact good news! The Church, as a good mother, calls all her children together on the Lord’s Day because the Lord wishes to bestow upon us His enormous and generous grace, to enable us to be truly liberated and healed from the misery, sadness and darkness of the world in which we live. It is the Lord’s Day and when we give ourselves to Him in true worship, He gives back far more than what we give Him. He transforms us. It is His design that makes every Sunday His day to offer this to us, and in doing so to transform every other day of the week, and the whole of our lives. Sunday mass is really good news! But it requires much from us!! And the truth is we are lazy, and we are grudging in what we want to give God.
Returning to the theme of Advent then, and the exhortation of John the Baptist to repent, we think of it in wholly negative terms. We think that that sounds miserable, that sounds as though it will make me sad. If I spend time examining myself, spend time thinking about my sins, then it will just make me a negative person and very sad; what we convince ourselves to think is that really we need to stop being so negative and start being a jolly person. So we paper over our sin, we forget about it, we leave it alone, we think that we know we’re not perfect but ‘no one is are they?’ We forget repentance and we ignore our sin. And we try to give ourselves a veneer of happiness – ‘we are free from that negativity, and now we can be happy.’ But the truth is that we are not really very happy at all! Below the surface of superficial jollity we experience misery and sadness.
We can see this in the modern western world we live in. Where is the joy? There is entertainment which is fleeting happiness, but when it is gone we feel even emptier inside!
And the reason for all this is that we have not dealt with the root causes of our problem. The root causes of our problem is within us, and is indeed our sin. That is why when God became Man, when God condescended to become a human being, He was called “Jesus” because “He will save us from our sins.” It is at the very heart of our faith, that the source of our problems is sin.
The Good News is repentance! Repentance is good news because we can actually deal with the problem of sin and really get rid of it! That is what the grace of Christ does for us. But it doesn’t happen without some effort on our part. We must be bothered, we must make the effort, we must not paper over our sin, we must look at it, confess it with sorrow, but then open ourselves to receive forgiveness and healing. And so repentance is good news not least because it gives us joy. Because when we empty ourselves of sin through the gift of Christ, we make room for Christ Himself to dwell within us. And if Christ dwells in us we are truly free, we are truly at peace, we are truly happy. Nothing in all creation can give us real and lasting happiness and joy and peace. Only God can do that, only God in Christ by the Holy Spirit can do that for us. This is the truth. This is the Good News! And it is joyful! Believe in it, my brothers and sisters. The world lies to us when it says dealing with your sin will only make you negative. There are tears on the way but they become tears of joy and happiness, and if we have real peace in our hearts – no one will be able to take that away from us.
So we keep Advent as a season of penitential preparation for Christmas not because we need to punish ourselves a bit before having a jolly festival! Advent reminds us that in order to have real deep and lasting joying we need to repent, and clear out our sin, in order to make room for God Himself, Emmanuel, to dwell within us. That, my brothers and sisters, is truly worth rejoicing about, truly what Gaudete Sunday is for – so now what about doing something about it?